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The Wild Story Behind the City’s Fanciest Development

The soul of modern Indonesian architecture can be traced to Jakarta’s Kebayoran Baru.

Photo by Tariq Khalil and KLITV archives

Jl Senjaya Buntu
Jl Senjaya Buntu

In the late 1930s, some Dutch planners sitting in Batavia–oblivious to the impending storms of war and revolution–dreamed up Kebayoran Baru, a satellite town for the capital with a difference.

While The Netherlands was exploiting what they called the Dutch East Indies as a cash-cow colony, progressive ideas stemming from the European garden-city movement and hands-on Christian socialism were, at a subconscious level, filtering through to shape plans for a more enlightened way of life in the capital.

Unlike the old world of Menteng, Kebayoran Baru was one of Southeast Asia’s earliest satellite towns, orbiting in a universe where divisions of race and class were transcended by a genuine social mix. Like Baghdad’s Green Zone today, Kebayoran Baru had a protective buffer to cordon it from bandits to the south and the chaotic sprawl of Jakarta to the north.

Jl Senjaya Buntu 2
Another view of Jl Senjaya Buntu

In 1946, after a troubled exit from the colony, the Dutch professional class began to slowly trickle back into town and city to get things up and running again. Indifferent to the post-revolutionary climate, they made many of the early blueprints for Indonesia’s emerging institutions under Sukarno’s nation-building push. With the unfinished business of a revolutionary war, engineers and architects sought aesthetic safety through revivalist styles of architecture. The look popularized in the 1920s and 1930s was back in vogue, as the returnees indulged in the familiar tropical Art Deco and the hybridized Indo-European, or Indische, style.

With bullets flying amid faltering peace agreements, Dutch developer Centrale Stichting Wederopbouw audaciously revisited the garden-city plan and began trying to buy tracts of scrubland and orchards in 1948 from Betawi landholders south of the city. Facing a local unwillingness to sell, partly due to mistrust and republican sympathies; the Dutch sought help from the district governor, who “persuaded” hundreds of reluctant fruit farmers to let go of their land. This top-down way of getting things done succeeded. By early 1949, many local residents had been resettled in Cilandak, South Jakarta, taking with them their salvaged homes: Mistrust and land acquisition have a long history.

With a nascent but sizeable civil service on standby in the war capital of Yogyakarta, the nation urgently needed new housing in Jakarta. This pressure partly swayed the government to buy into Kebayoran Baru project in 1949. Paying the developer the then-princely sum of Rp 15 million for 700 hectacres, the government took over the construction of Indonesia’s first new town. While transfer of government from Yogyakarta to Jakarta a year later created a surge of new arrivals packing Jakarta’s open space, it was more ordered in the new town.

Things weren’t so rosy. Isolated from Jakarta, the area was a haven for armed gangs and grombolan (bandits)–some of who began conducting raids and hold-ups for building materials. Until the early 1960s, sightings of criminals were not uncommon, although construction was relentless. New owners did not seem to see the need for security beyond tiny picket fences and hedges.

Despite its garden-city ethos, Kebayoran Baru had little space set aside for low-income families. The miniscule numbers that did make it inside the zone were not comfortable in these new surroundings. Nether did resettled civil servants adapt well to their new homes. Others just shunned the area–this was after all the edge of the civilized world. There were many tears shed by new settlers in the 1950s and early 1960s. The dwindling band of octogenarians from Arisan Kampung were then heartbroken at being so far removed from family and friends in Menteng.

The momentum for building lower income housing to balance social diversity wilted quickly as higher returns pushed the building of villas for wealthy buyers and high ranking public servants. Construction shifted to larger villas to attract higher income families. Arranged into 19 blocks based on land use and building size, many developments had elite sectors with landed two-storey villas aimed at housing executives from Dutch conglomerates or elite families to members of newly established public institutions: Each block had its prime tenants from the Indonesian Military, the National Police and newly formed state banks.

Panglim Polim III

Kebayoran Baru’s prestigious architecture appeared at the end of the long tail of decolonization. Dutch firms dominated construction with prime contractors like NEDAM and bureaus such as IBIV, Kondor, Himalja, IEC and AIA designing vast swathes of new town properties until the end of 1957. What really set this place apart were its upscale townhouses, or Rumah Partikular. Prominent Dutch architects fashioned Indonesia’s old-new look during these early years, giving a new lease of life to colonial townhouse styles still visible in Menteng’s Jl. Iman Bonjol.

Deep in their souls, the Dutch knew their privileged world was coming to an end. Psychologists use the term extinction burst when treating anxiety disorders. When a behaviour loses its hold symptoms ramp up before they fizzle out and resolve. Likewise their imaginations just wild with invention.

An exuberant new look, strikingly bold plays of oblique geometry cleverly evolved the old by transposing and re-expressing forms from the US’ postwar suburbs. A new species, like mankind, was evolving side by side with the old forms. The earliest pioneer of this alternative, mid-century modern style was Belitung Island-born Gerardus Boom, director of Archtectenbureau Job en Sprey. Around 1950, he designed two small terraced duplex villas for Shell Oil’s local operation, Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij.

Despite the novel look of these duplex townhouses, Jengki (Yankee) style, as it is known today was not a very popular design. Harry Kwee, an intern for Boom during the summer of 1954, recalled that the more fancy ones were an acquired taste. Yet this new style was Indonesia’s design black swan for the no-name cadre of homegrown architectural innovators, the anonymous Aannemer.

Three steady decades of Soeharto’s pro-business agenda revived then propelled the economy. The balance sheet for Indonesia’s first new town was not so promising with unplanned suburbanization the bottom line. Beginning in the late 1970s, civil servants living in public housing began buying their homes. Firman Santoso, a lifelong Kebayoran-ista and real estate consultant in Kebayoran witnessed the steady flow of school friends moving further south in the 1990s. High land taxes and land speculation continue to lure many of the original middle-income families to sell up. What has followed after demolitions are high-rises or hasty renovations of period properties that leave little trace of the new town’s style.

The dream fizzled out years ago. Kebayoran Baru, along with its older cousin, Menteng, are the most expensive real estate in the country. Ironically, with public order at the best it has been for years, today’s prevailing security obsession drives owners install taller and taller walls, barriers blocking streets and cages for its dwindling green space. The core ideals of the garden-city movement–nurturing the best of city and countryside to serve a balanced social mix–didn’t travel beyond the drawing board and reside in the realm of the mythical.

Kebayoran’s true legacy is as a test bed for architectural innovation. Its homes, shophouses and public buildings virally inspired heaps of unknown builders, owners and adventurers in cities and towns beyond Jakarta. Catch this fading majesty and mysterious saga of social engineering while you can.

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